Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist

July 20, 2011

But in those parts which can be portrayed by art, I have not failed to use all the diligence in my power and knowledge, in order to present the truth...
Sofonisba Anguissola
Letter to Pope Pius IV

Mary Garrard on Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist

Before I get started I must admit some trepidation about writing this post since I am no scholar but only a student of art history. Art is the great passion in my life and Mary D. Garrard's article Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist, is the embodiment of all that I find fascinating and stimulating about the creative process - how an artist can make a statement and express herself, in spite of the common ideals imposed on her by a confining society.

Although she came from an affluent family of high social standing, which enabled her to cultivate her talents, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) still lived in a time when women were celebrated primarily for their virtue and beauty, their sole ambition to marry and bear children. Through her art, Sofonisba liberated herself from the expectations imposed on women and created a body of work that transcends centuries,  a statement that is enduring to this day.

Professor Garrard delves into the problem of the Renaissance female artist whose very existence, she points out, was considered an unusual phenomenon by her contemporaries. In this article, Garrard uses striking examples of Anguissola’s paintings to shed some light on the gender issues of the day and interpret the visual manifestation of her reactions to them.

Sofonisba Anguissola's painting, Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (pictured above), is an intriguing rendering of the artist's teacher painting a portrait of her. At first glance, it seems like a depiction of the male mentor endorsing his protege's significance by his own consequence, which, according to Mary Garrard mirrors the Pygmalion myth of the male artist as the supreme creator giving the breath of life to his own creation. Sofonisba's work was even referred to as the outcome of Campi's own "beautiful intellect," giving this idea credence.

However, the iconography in this double portrait can be read as quite the opposite. Even though the painted image of the female artist is supposedly objectified because she is being painted by the male artist, due to its bigger size and more central position, the painted image of Sofonisba on the easel is more prominent than that of Campi. The illuminated face, single hand and rosy complexion conveying a lifelike appearance are characteristics both the figures in the painting share as well as their intense gaze directed at the spectator, drawing the viewer into their psychological space. Sofonisba’s unseen presence as the actual creator of this scene, giving life to the images on the canvas is acknowledged by Campi’s over-the-shoulder gaze.

Of all the symbols used to equalize and maybe even supersede Sofonisba’s image with that of her teacher, my personal favorite is the inclusion of the mahlstick, which was a tool used to steady the hand. Mary Garrard points out that in Renaissance art, it could imply artistic timidity or preoccupation with detail. As a result, this painting can actually be read as the prominent female artist using the acceptable notions of her contemporaries to construct an image with a contradictory meaning, decoded by understanding the symbols she presents to the viewer.

A document from this period might give us more insight into the problematic reality of the Renaissance woman artist that may have induced such a coded form of self-representation. Garrard explains:
“In a letter of 23 December 1558 the writer Annibale Caro asserted to Sofonisba’s father Amilcare that as a connoisseur of art he took special pleasure in self portraits by women artists such as Amilcare’s daughters, particularly Sofonisba, since he could exhibit them as “two marvels,” one the work itself, the other its painter. Caro’s letter reflects two commonly held ideas of the period. One was that the exceptional existence of a woman artist in Renaissance Italy was a social “marvel.” The other was that while a beautiful woman might be a “marvel” of nature, the image of a beautiful woman was a marvel of art. As an extension of the latter idea, imaged female beauty had become in sixteenth-century art theory a synecdoche for art itself.”

Garrard claims that Caro’s esteem for the image of the female painter reflects his understanding of a theoretical convention of the day that made a special connection between art and female beauty which could be symbolized in the portrait of a woman. The beautiful images represented in these portraits being a product of the artist or the theorist contrived from individual features of many women, purely hypothetical, not to be found in real life.

In relation to the perfect representations of female beauty, Garrard mentions Titian’s La Bella, Parmigianino’s Antea and Palma Vecchio’s Flora, all of which whether they be images of a courtesan or the artist’s beloved, she classifies as eroticized dream images. There was a story frequently represented in Renaissance art from antiquity, of Alexander the Great gifting his mistress to Apelles, the artist who painted her, believing Apelles had a more discerning eye for her beauty. Apropos to this story, the foundation of the artist-patron-model relationship as a sexually charged commodity to be exchanged within the male sphere is revealed.

Titian's La Bella. c.1536. Palazzo Pitti. Florence

From the concept of woman as an exchangeable possession of men we move to the Renaissance myth of the male artist as supreme creator, forming a correlation between the male that gives life by inseminating woman and the male artist turning the material model into art. According to Garrard, the painted image of a beautiful woman reinforced male artist's self-image as the possessor of a special creative power and sexual virility which in turn positioned women either as the personification of the inert material out of which man made art or a possessable entity akin to a real-life courtesan or a portable imaged beauty.

In Sofonisba Anguissola’s painting, Portrait of Giulio Clovio, the artist Clovio is shown holding in his hand a miniature of the Flemish artist Levina Teerlinc. Even though the miniature was known to be a possession of Clovio’s, that he kept with him till the end of his life, Sofonisba's intentions in this representation can still be questioned. By depicting the image of the female artist being held by the male artist, was Sofonisba touching on the issue of female artist as small and possessable, simply a symbol of beauty and art or the fate of the woman artist existing only within the grasp of the prodigious male artist?

Portrait of Giulio Clovio. 1556. Collection of Federico Zeri, Rome

At a time when the female artist’s existence could be construed as a threat to the male artist’s God-like persona, Sofonisba Anguissola seems to have managed not only to exist but also be accepted without being an affront to the male-chauvinistic ideals of her day. Her carefully cultivated image of austerity, reinforced by her self-representations wearing mostly black, similar to the male-courtier’s attire, without any of the accessories befitting a woman of her station seems to have helped establish her as a serious artist with a claim to culture. Garrard writes:

“In her self-portraits, then Anguissola presents herself as “like a man,” avoiding feminine signifiers that might link her with paragons of beauty or courtesan and emphasizing features associates with independence, self-possession, and maturity. Such a self presentation carried certain risks for a woman in Sofonisba’s position. In the Renaissance (but not uniquely), women of achievement who remained unmarried tended to produce irrational anxiety in men.”

It seems the only way to appease the anxiety caused by intellectual women was to confine them to feminine sexual classifications by either emphasizing their purity and virginity or questioning their chastity. Mary Garrard refers to this as “a variant of the strategies for controlling exceptional women.” The excessive sexualizing of intellectual or creative women worked to render them unexceptional, dissociating attention from their disturbing accomplishments.

Including certain visual tools in her self-images like books, paint brushes and musical instruments was another way a female artist could distinguish herself as an intellectual with accomplishments. Musical instruments having sexual associations in the Renaissance were probably, particularly challenging to use in self-representations. Sofonisba and several women artists included the spinetta and virginals, in their female portraits or self-portraits.

Self-Portrait at Spinet with attendant. 1561. Spencer Collection. Althorp, Northampton

At a time when musical instruments were metaphors for the female body, the differentiating factor it seems was the act of the female playing the instrument which conveyed the message of the artist being endowed with self-possession and self-management. By portraying themselves in dignified dress and without any male companions, the women artist could emphasize her independence of men and the seriousness of her performance.

The Chess Game. 1555. Museum Nardowe, Poznan (Poland)

If portraits of women playing a musical instrument could be understood to convey a message of independence and composure then Sofonisba’s most famous paintings, The Chess Game, in which Sofonisba portrays two of her sisters Lucia and Europa playing chess while another sister, Minerva, and their nurse looks on, to convey a message of female intellectual capacity. Mary Garrard explains that the rules of chess had changed around this time, making the queen the most powerful pawn in the game and she hypothesizes that Sofonisba was probably making a statement about women's intelligence by depicting an all female group situated around a chess-board. There are also other typical associations she mentions like the gazes of the sisters moving from one to the other, indicating the chain of influence they had on each other. The elder sister, Lucia, also an artist, looks out of the picture plane to Sofonisba, the artist of the painting, making the connection of the artist’s influence on her sisters as their role model and teacher.

The Family Group. c.1558. Nivagaards Malerisamling (Denmark)

Unlike the male artist whose work was often for the public domain, most of Sofonisba's art catered to the private realm, generally consisting of family members and their private history. Another thought-provoking painting of her own family members that is rich in coded and ambiguous messages is The Family Group. On the surface it seems, as the name suggests, an obvious depiction of a family scene with Sofonisba’s father, Amilcare, her brother Asdrubale and her sister Minerva. But Minerva’s gaze at her brother from her neglected position behind her father while Asdrubale stares up at his father who has his arm around him becomes apparent. The males form a bond by their connected hands. The tension in Minerva’s situation is subtly conveyed by the way she is holding her skirt. Furthermore, the mother is conspicuously absent, replaced by a dog. As unusual as this image is for family portraits of this time which would include all the family members under the protective gaze of the family patriarch, all the visual signs might be giving us a glimpse into the internal relationships of this particular family which mirrors the actual reality of sixteenth-century Italy. Garrard states:

“It is thus implied that Amilcare has pinned his hopes on his son to carry on the family name through his own progeny and to maintain the family estates, which may be visually alluded to in the background.”

The father looks directly at Sofonisba, the artist outside of the picture plane, who is fundamentally related to this group. Garrard ponders if that look signifies a call for support and assistance, since the family’s fortunes were at a decline at this time and Sofonisba’s paintings had become a source of income or if it signifies Sofonisba’s judgmental position on the hypocrisy of the patriarchal system?

Sofonisba Anguissola was an accomplished artist who went as far as to become court painter to Phillip II of Spain. She came from a family of minor nobility and had the advantage of a great education which provided her with a certain amount of independence to think and create. She was even noticed by the great Michelangelo who made a suggestion about one of her drawings. Although her personal accomplishments far surpassed that of her one time teacher, Bernardino Campi, she still had to abide by being labeled a by-product of his creativity. Even though she contributed greatly to her family’s income, she lived within the patriarchal modes of 16th century Italy that disregarded a female’s contribution as nothing more than decorative, as Garrard summates:

“her art was purchased and admired by male connoisseurs as expressions of their values, not hers.”

Being privy to all this information makes me rejoice in the power of art because in the end Sofonisba Anguissola expressed herself in such an intelligent way under the guise of proper femininity that no one could disparage her work or her person for being anything other than respectable. Her narrative portraits, of acceptable female subjects like Bernadino Campi painting Sofonisba Anguissola, the Chess Game and the Family Group are commentaries of the world she lived in with layers of meaning that could be interpreted according to the viewer’s own perspective. In these portraits she related scenes that are pleasing to viewers, but also relevant to her personally, using compositional and symbolic devices to convey a deeper meaning and personal viewpoint.

Using keen insight and the tools of her craft, Sofonisba Anguissola empowered herself with the omnipotent presence usually attributed to male artists during the Renaissance. Her life and legacy are a source of inspiration, where intelligence and application prevail over adversity and social restriction.

Garrard, M.D. Here's Looking at Me : Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist. Renaissance Quartlerly. Vol. 47, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994). University of Chicago Press. pp. 556-622 link

Robin D.M., Larsen A.R., Levin, C. Encyclopedia of women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. ABC-CLIO. 2007. pp.14-18 link

Vasari, G.  Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors, and architects.  DeVere, G.C (Trans.) Ekserdijan, D.(ed.). Knopf. 1996

Sedef Piker is a graduate of F.I.T at New York State University. She has studied the complex forms of Tehzip (Ottoman Illuminated Calligraphy) at the Ministry of Culture’s Traditional Turkish Decorative Arts program in Topkapi Palace, participating in several group exhibitions including one at the National Library in Ankara and one at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul. She describes each experience in her life studying design and learning artistic technique being accompanied by a ''gnawing hunger for more knowledge'' of art and history, which she delights in exploring at Sedef's Corner.


Heidenkind said...

Very interesting! I love how expressive Anguissola's portraits are--much more so than we're used to seeing from Renaissance artists.

Great post!

Alberti's Window said...

Great post! This is a great contribution to 3PP's series on women artists.

I was especially interested in Garrard's commentary on chess and how the queen recently had become the most powerful figure on the board. I have also read that "The Chess Game" can relate to female intellectual capacity in another way: chess was seen as an intellectual activity which was restricted to men. Anguissola definitely seems interested in making a statement by depicting this game!

P.S. I admire the humility you expressed at the beginning of your post. But even scholars of art history are (or at least should still be) students at the same time. I'm glad that you wrote this post!

Sedef said...

Thanks for your kind remarks.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! What wonderful commentary about the struggle of the woman as an artist. And excellent prose.

Glennis McGregor said...

Very interesting read. Many of these issues resonate with women artists today. I'll look out for Sofonisba Anguissola's work in my future gallery travels.

Barbara Wells Sarudy said...

Well written. I especially like the insightful expansion of Garrard's, "the painted image of a beautiful woman reinforced male artist's self-image as the possessor of a special creative power and sexual virility which in turn positioned women either as the personification of the inert material out of which man made art or a possessable entity akin to a real-life courtesan or a portable imaged beauty." From a student or a scholar, this is well done. Wonder how much has changed since 1625.

Gemma Garcia said...

Great Post! Sofonisba ha sido una mujer tremendamente interesante, con una larga vida loq ue ha haecho que pudiese evolucionar como artista de una forma compleja y maravillosa. En Madrid tenemos la suerte de tener fabulosos cuadros de su etapa en la Corte de Felipe II y sin duda su delicadeza y su inteligencia hace que sus retratos de la Familia Real sean los mejores.

Selen Atac said...

Thank you, this is a great post, that inspired me to dig more !

Unknown said...

Many thanks to Sedef for the wonderful guest post, and to everyone for the lovely comments. 3PP hopes to feature more guest posts on women artists in the future.

Kind Regards

K. Bender said...

This is an interesting and enjoyable post. I didn't know Sofonisba ANGUISSOLA, probably because I am very much biased through my exploration of the iconography of Venus. Her contemporary compatriot Lavinia FONTANA (Bologna 1552-Roma 1614) and her somewhat younger compatriot Artemisia GENTILESCHI (Roma 1593-Napoli ca 1652), on the contrary, depicted Venus.
From what I learned, ANGUISSOLA avoided any reference to Venus, in accordance with her background, education and successful effort to be a respected woman artist of high social standing.
In this respect, I have some reticence in accepting the interpretation Common sense says that musical instruments were (and are) used in the first place for entertainment, and not necessarily 'having sexual associations'. Is this not an anachronistic 'Freudian' wording?
However, I do recognise their potential use in an erotic environment when, for instance, Venus is depicted - see my webpage on 'TIZIANO's Venus with the Musician'. But the article makes it very clear that Sofonisba ANGUISSOLA wished to avoid any connotation in her painting to Venus Pictoria: the symbol of the art of painting in the 16th-17th century. In this way, she is really very exceptional.

K. Bender said...

The other day I found that the famous Karel van Mander (1548–1606) (1), Flemish-born Dutch painter and poet, mainly remembered as a biographer of more than 250 artists in his 'Schilder-boeck' of 1604 (2), made a long reference to SOPHONISBA ANGUISSOLA (3). He praises her remarkably high and adds: "... maer heeft uyt haer selven, en van haer eyghen vindinge, wonderlijcke fraey dingen gedaen, en geschildert." My translation: " ...but she made by her own creative power wonderful and beautiful paintings" (4).
(2) The facsimile can be downloaded here:
An English introduction with a reference to the English translation:
(3) In the chapter of the facsimile (see note above): "Het Leven Der Moderne, oft dees-tijtsche doorluchtighe Italiaensche Schilders." with a last section "Van eenige Italiaensche Vrouwen, die de Teycken-const, en Schilderen constich hebben gheoeffent." (Italian women painters worthy of mention).
(4) Full text: 'Doch eene, geheeten Sophonisba van Cremonen, dochter van Amilcar Anguscivola, dese heeft meer als ander Vrouw in Italien van onsen tijde toegeleyt, moeyt en vlijt gedaen, de Schilder-const te oeffenen: ghelijck sy oock met meerder volcomenheyt en welstandt heeft ghedaen: want sy niet alleen con teyckenen, coloreren, en conterfeyten nae t'leven, oft Meesters dingen wel en uytnemende copieren: maer heeft uyt haer selven, en van haer eyghen vindinge, wonderlijcke fraey dingen gedaen, en geschildert. Soo dat den Coning van Spaengien Philippus, hebbende door Duc d'Alba verstaen haer deucht en weerdicheyt in de Const, haer (als des weerdich) heeft by hem in Spaengien ontboden, en seer eerlijck doen halen: alwaer sy by de Coninginne van hem werdt bestelt met een goede provisie, met een groot verwonderen van al het Hofghesin, wesende seer verbaest van der uytnementheyt van Sophonisba. Daer werdt gesonden aen den Hertogh van Florencen een seer aerdige teyckeninge van haer handt, welck was een Meysken lachende om een crijtende kindt, want t'Meysken hadde voor hem ghestelt een korfken met kreeften, van welcker een hem by den vingher hadde ghevat, het welcke soo natuerlijck was gedaen, oft het leven self hadde geweest."

K. Bender said...

With SOFONISBA and her painting 'Self-portrait at spinet' in mind, I came across a similar painting by the Flemish woman painter Catharina VAN HEMESSEN (1528-after 1587), daughter of the painter Jan Sanders VAN HEMESSEN (1500-66). The painting is entitled 'M├Ądchen am Virginal' (Girl at spinet), oil on wood, 30,5x24 cm, dated 1548, owned by the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, inventory nr WRM 0654 ( a picture in Bildindex Marburg|20.)
One could speculate if SOFONISBA knew about this earlier painting since Catharina, who had a good reputation at the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp and made also a 'Self Portrait', was mentioned in Italian writer & merchant Lodovico Guicciardini's (1521-89) book 'Description of the Low Countries' (1567). See

Unknown said...

Interesting points K. Bender. Another important example is Caterina van Hemessen's self portrait at easel. It is the earliest surviving painting of an artist at an easel. Given Sofonisba's own remarkable portrait of this type, and the example at the Spinet, a degree of familiarity with van Hemessen's work becomes increasingly plausible.

Kind Regards

Anonymous said...

this is awesome!!!!

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